US regulator to overhaul air safety oversight

Grounded Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft at Victorville Airport in California on Tuesday. The aircraft type has been grounded globally following two fatal crashes that killed nearly 350 people.
Grounded Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft at Victorville Airport in California on Tuesday. The aircraft type has been grounded globally following two fatal crashes that killed nearly 350 people.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON/SEATTLE • The US aviation regulator will significantly change its oversight approach to air safety by July following two fatal Boeing 737 Max passenger aircraft crashes, according to written congressional testimony.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) acting head Dan Elwell was slated to appear at a United States Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing yesterday, and said the agency's oversight approach must "evolve" after the deadly crashes, according to the testimony.

While specific details on oversight changes were not clear, lawmakers were expected to question Mr Elwell on how the regulator intends to change the process by which a manufacturer like Boeing can to a large extent certify its own planes and flight software systems.

Anti-stall software on the Boeing 737 Max plane is among the leading areas of focus for investigations into the two crashes.

Investigators have pointed to "clear similarities" between the crashes, putting pressure on Boeing and US regulators to come up with an adequate fix.

The aviation industry has been thrown into flux by a Lion Air crash in Indonesia last October that killed 189 people and an Ethiopian Airlines disaster on March 10 that killed 157, both involving Boeing's 737 Max single-aisle planes.

A spokesman for Ethiopia's transport ministry said the preliminary crash report would very likely be released this week.

Boeing's fastest-selling 737 Max jet, with orders worth more than US$500 billion (S$677 billion) at list prices, has been grounded globally, although airlines are still allowed to fly them without passengers to move planes to other airports and facilities.

Mr Elwell's testimony discloses that Boeing first submitted a proposed upgrade to its anti-stall software - the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) - to the FAA for certification on Jan 21.

Boeing confirmed that on Tuesday, saying verification and certification flights took place on Feb 7 and March 12, which are within the typical testing time period.

The documentation to show FAA compliance was expected at the end of the week, Boeing said.

Boeing is this week briefing airlines on software and training updates for the Max, with more than 200 airline pilots, technical experts and regulators from around the world due to visit the Renton, Washington, facility where the 737 is assembled.

As well as FAA approval, any Max software fixes will need the green light from governments around the world, a process that could take months. Boeing shares have lost about 12 per cent and US$29 billion in market value since the crash in Ethiopia.

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2019, with the headline 'US regulator to overhaul air safety oversight'. Print Edition | Subscribe